Saturday, June 05, 2010

Book Review: The Making of an Atheist

James S. Spiegel, The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief Chicago, Ill: Moody Press, 2010. 141 pages. $12.99.

Philosopher James Spiegel has written a clear, biblically-informed, philosophically-astute and well-documented account of the ultimate origins of atheism. Unbelief, he argues, is not attributable to a lack of evidence for God. Rather, the problem is fixed in human rebellion against God himself, just as Paul explained in the first chapter of Romans. This book provides a much needed dimension of analysis in light of all the press received in the past few years by “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris.

Some of those who believe that atheism is rooted more in rebellion than in argument foreswear the need for any constructive case for theism or for particular Christian beliefs. Not so for Professor Spiegel. Instead, he argues that the evidence supports theism (the laws of nature, the existence of the universe, and the emergence of life) and that naturalism is self-defeating since it cannot account for human rationality (summarizing Alvin Plantinga’s argument). But positive apologetics is not the main purpose of his book. Spiegel aptly summarizes his book’s thesis on pages 113-114.

"The descent into atheism is caused by a complex of moral-psychological factors, not a perceived lack of evidence for God’s existence. The atheist willfully rejects God, though this is precipitated by immoral indulgences and typically a broken relationship with his or her father. Thus, the choice of the atheist paradigm is motivated by non-rational factors, some of which are psychological and some of which are moral in nature.

The hardening of the atheist mind-set occurs through cognitive malfunction due to two principle causes. First, atheists suffer from paradigm-induced blindness, as their worldview inhibits their ability to recognize the reality of God that is manifest in creation. Second, atheists suffer from damage to their sensus divinitatis [the sense for God’s existence], so their natural awareness of God is severely impeded. Both of these mechanisms are aspects of the noetic effects of sin."

After articulating the intellectual and moral errors of atheism, Spiegel concludes with a brief but insightful chapter called “The Blessings of Theism.” Here he explains that Christian theists can develop intellectual and moral virtues and live honestly before God. They are free to both complain to God and praise God. All aspects of the human personality can be offered to a personal and moral Creator, thus insuring human flourishing in ways impossible for atheism. Atheism is simply incompatible with a life well-lived (shalom).

Atheists may complain that Spiegel is poisoning the well or begging the question against the unbeliever, that he simply assumes theism and then dismisses atheism as something morally and intellectually defective. This is not so. Contrariwise, as mentioned, Spiegel does not disavow arguments for theism; but instead of pursuing that (very common) route, he considers the psychology of atheism from the vantage point of biblical theism. (In this, his book is similar to R.C. Sproul’s earlier work, The Psychology of Atheism; later republished as If There is a God, Why are There Atheists? as well as Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death.) The atheist who reads this book is therefore enjoined to consider whether or not the biblical explanation of the origin, nature, and continuation of his unbelief may, in fact, ring true.


TheGroothuisFactor said...

Not bad. Do you have plans to review John Loftus' Why I Became An Atheist? Or Loftus and Richard Carrier's The Christian Delusion. Two reasons to inspire your potential reviews of their books:

1.) They are inspiring many deconversions (check Loftus' blog for the deconversion testimonials).

2.) They are equipping and encouraging these deconverts with better intellectual tools to combat Christianity than any of the New Atheists.

The New Atheists are the strawmen.

Guys like Loftus, Oppy, Carrier, etc. are the real deal.

Doug Groothuis said...

Strange Pseudonym to use. Why not use your real name?

Yes, the folks you mentioned tend to be more serious in their unbelief than the new atheists, but the latter are getting the most attention, and that's why I mentioned them. Since they are influential, their arguments need to be addressed. That's why I have reviewed The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and Letter to a Christian Nation, all in The Christian Research Journal. Some of these may be on line.

I will be dealing with the major arguments for atheism in my book, What Matters Most. Not sure when it will come out. I do not know if Loftus that adds anything new to the standard arguments against theism and Christianity. Perhaps he will chime and with his perspective here.

TheGroothuisFactor said...

What seems distinct about Loftus' case is his emphasis on (i) the cumulative case against Christianity and (ii) The Outsider Test for Faith. This is not to say that no one has thought of something similar but that Loftus has refined thse two arguments to an extent that others have not.

As for the pseudonym? It actually has to do with my particular deconversion. I deconverted from Christianity due to reading Loftus...who I found out about from you and your blog. You were the factor that led to the source of my deconversion. Hence, The Groothuis Factor. Other friends of mine have read your site and seen your promotion of Loftus and have left behind their faith as a result.

Doug Groothuis said...

Well, I supposed that is meant to make me feel guilty. But I never promoted Loftus, I simply posted an article there. If your Christian commitment cannot withstand the standard objections, then it wasn't real to begin with--unnless, of course, you come back to Christ, as at least one "deconvert" from Loftus's influence has (who will remain nameless).

I find nothing original in the "outsider test." All apologetics should be done with the outsider in mind.

Doug Groothuis said...

Moreover, since GroothuisFactor will not even disclose his or her name, why should we believe that he or she says? Could be just a psychological ploy...

TheGroothuisFactor said...

1.) The above quotes were not meant to make you feel guilty. Rather, it was to show why you may want to spend time battling his arguments since people are finding his works through your site.

2.) It is a rather harsh assumption to assume that because I won't post my real name that I am using a "psychological ploy". It is not necessarilly true that because a pseudonym is used that the person is being insincere.

Think of it this way:
As a Christian, you care about souls. Should you not risk "playing the fool for Christ" and assuming that someone is being sincere? Thus far no signs have been given that I am insincere so why the lack of civility? The pursuit of truth should be guided with civility.

3.) To say that you find nothing 'original' in the outsider test is not the same as saying that it isn't true.

Will guys like Loftus reach the masses a la Dawkins? In one sense, no. In one sense, yes.
No in the sense that he probably will never sell as many books as Dawkins.
In another sense, he might. His arguments and tools will provide a stronger fleet of counter-apologists to Christianity. The thoughtful deconvert is what will ultimately trouble Christianity. Loftus and his boys are grooming such unbelievers. Through their everyday conversations such ideas can be transmitted through the culture and evolve in due time. Hence the reason to address them at some point versus the New crowd.

Sarah Schoonmaker said...

Hi "Groothuis Factor,"

I find it hard to believe that this blog and Loftus alone are the main reasons for your de-conversion. Especially since this blog doesn't "promote" Loftus. Even if these are influential factors to your de-conversion, I think we all need to take ownership and responsibility for what we believe and why. One should never form a world view based on one person alone, but instead, read an assortment of academic non-Christian and Christian resources. As one who left the faith temporarily, journeyed through agnosticism/skepticism for a time, read an assortment of atheist/agnostic authors, took Loftus' outsider test, and discussed world views with a variety of people from different perspectives, I ultimately have arrived back to belief in Christ. I think the Outside Test leads to faith in Christ as the best explanation and the cumulative case fails to present anything that refutes Christian theism.

I am curious to know what in particular persuaded you from the Outsider Test for Faith and cumulative case against Christianity?


Doug Groothuis said...

To: TGF:

1. I cannot verify what you say is true, given the medium and given your unwillingness to identify yourself.

2. On Loftus's originality: I believe I have dealt with all or most all of Loftus's ideas previously, in my many years of teaching apologetics and/or in my previously published works (10 books, dozens of academic and popular articles) and my forthcoming apologetics book, What Matter Most. Of course, I never assumed that if he is not original he is not right. You missed the point.

For over years I have attempted to address the central arguments against Christianity. I am in no way running from a fight just because I have not directly reviewed Loftus's book.

The Atheist Missionary said...

Professor, I have no idea why TGF uses a pseudonym but I thought I would chip in and explain why I do. I have 3 children and live in Canad's Bible belt. Those who take the Bible literally do not take any more kindly to those who would create apostates than they do to abortion doctors.

This issue reminds me of a great line by Alan Watts in Myth and Religion: "I return to the point that the clergy and people of the church do not really believe at all in God in the old-fashioned sense of the word. If they did seriously believe the Christian religion in its orthodox form, they would be screaming in the street."

I agree with Watts and contend that very few of the those who identify themselves as Christians believe the fundamental tenets of their faith. By fundamental tenets, I mean the following beliefs: that God is a supernatural deity who actively intervenes in the world (such as through the power of prayer), the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Christ. I don't arrive at this contention lightly. It is the product of hundreds of conversations with professed religious believers. Once you scratch the surface of their professed belief, what you usually find are the following:

1. a sincere desire to believe the things they have usually indoctrinated with since birth;

2. a host of logical fallacies such as the false dichotomy, the negative proof fallacy (i.e. because a premise cannot be proven false, the premise must be true) and the inevitable arguments from ignorance;

3. a general sense that "religion is good" for society and that nihilist anarchy would result if everyone admitted that the myths underpinning Christianity are, at best, improbable and, at worst, absurd; and

4. an honest skepticism with respect to the supernatural claims of their chosen creed.

Why those who honestly believe the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith are not screaming in the streets is beyond me.

Just my 2 cents. In light of your editorial policy, I'm not sure if this will make it through the censor or not.

Best regards and peace, TAM.

Tony Lombardo said...

Hi Dr Groothuis,
I read this book after you mentioned it in a conversation. I also very much appreciated Spiegel's emphasis on non-cognitive factors in belief formation. I have seen too many otherwise highly rational and calm atheists/agnostics react far too emotionally when it comes to anything even tangentially related to "God talk," such that I have to believe in a fundamental spiritual core to our noetic structures that precedes and heavily conditions our rational faculty. I did think his discussion of positive apologetics was a distraction, given his topic, but this was a minor criticism. Have you ever read Wolterstorff's review of Pinnock's apologetics text? I found it in a collection called "Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology" edited by Sweetman and Geivett. I am moving in a much more Reformed direction in terms of the "sensus divinitatus" and Van Til's view of natural theology as distracting from the real area of concern, which is the will. Also, "Desiring the Kingdom" by James K.A. Smith contains a nice reworking of anthropology along the lines of viewing human being as fundamentally desiring, embodied, affective, liturgical animals (while at the same time not stupidly dismissing our rational nature) that fits nicely with Spiegel's description of the descent into atheism.

TheGroothuisFactor said...

Dr. G,

It is humbling to admit but I am angry with God. I do not want Him to exist! I re-read your review of Spiegel's book and think that I might have to re-evaluate my case against God. A damaged sensus-divinitatis is something I had not considered before. I've just messed up my relation with God too much.

Doug Groothuis said...

Dear TGF:

Well, I am angry with God, too--just as the Psalms often were. See Psalm 88, for example, for a particularly raw and wounded interaction by Heman, who was likely chronically ill, as is a loved one of mine. This last line is, "Darkness is my closest friend." This may be the only Psalm of lament that does not end on a upbeat.

I'm angry, not because there is not a good intellectual case for God (there is), but because of so many unanswered prayers--for my loved ones especially. But at the end of the day, where else can I go but to the one who has the words of eternal life (see John 6 on this)?

And God in Christ forgives my undue anger. Wounds can be gifts to the God who himself was wounded beyond measure in Christ. There is a short book called, "May I Hate God" that you might find helpful.

I'd be happy to interact with you more personally about all this if you would like. Just send me an email. In any event, I will be praying for you.

Sarah Schoonmaker said...


I am frustrated with God as well, but at the end of the day, atheism/agnosticism not only falls short intellectually, but on a conscious or subconscious level, leaves one in despair. With such piercing words, Kierkegaard and Pascal claim that humans live in misery without God since He is the only one that can restore, fulfill, and transform our heart, mind, and soul.

It is never too late to return to Christ.

"Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." Matthew 11:28-29

"Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes, with your right hand you save me. The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your love, O LORD, endures forever—do not abandon the works of your hands." Psalm 138:7-8

"I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms." Ephesians 1:17-20.

Best wishes,

TheGroothuisFactor said...

Doug and Sarah,

Thank you. Thank you for the recommendations and the words.
I will consider them on my search for truth.

Weekend Fisher said...

"Why those who honestly believe the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith are not screaming in the streets is beyond me."

-- Because screaming in the streets isn't very effective; tends to get you locked up in a psych ward somewhere. Neither is it what Jesus asked us to do, which is (for me) more to the point.

I don't know how conventional I am among Christians. My parents didn't take me to church when I was little; I started going with a friend when I was old enough to reconsider the knee-jerk mock-and-ridicule response I'd learned to religion at home.

I'm surprised that you criticize people for ... how did you put it ... "an honest skepticism" (etc). If people didn't show that "honest skepticism" you'd consider them closed-minded and going around with blinders on, wouldn't you? But if they do ... well, the religious camp can't win either way in your accounting.

To me, looking honestly at skeptical arguments is just part of living in modern culture, where (in certain places, & I've been there) skeptical arguments are fairly in-your-face, so you need to have taken an honest look at them.

I can understand why someone would think twice about the supernatural. I don't apologize for thinking twice myself. But at the end of the day, I believe that the people who wrote the gospels were -- nevermind "infallible" -- at least basically honest and basically sane. Based on that, I believe Jesus rose from the dead, and that God has promised his world his love and his redemption. Based on what happened with Jesus, that God did not abandon him to the grave, I believe God has given the world his promise that he will not abandon us either. Jesus' empty tomb -- you can go visit it in Jerusalem if you like -- is God's promise to the world that your tomb will be empty too.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Victor Reppert said...

Doug: On one level, I don't especially like psychoanalytic argument, believing pretty strongly in the idea that ad hominem arguments are the most pernicious and dangerous kinds. However, atheists make it a habit of impugning the motives of Christians and, at the same time, nominate themselves for intellectual sainthood, refusing to recognize the psychological causes of their own unbelief. They love to portray themselves as transcending their own fondest wishes and following the argument where it leads, while their Christian opponents just believe what they prefer to be true. So it is sometimes necessary to talk about the motivations of the atheist, if for no other reason than to get the ad hominems off the table so that the real evidence can be discussed.

John W. Loftus said...

Doug, this discussion was quite interesting to me. Like you, Vic Reppert doesn't really think much of me or my arguments.

But hey, just like you he has not read them.

And I find that funny.

But I'll tell you this. I'm just getting started.

I do not plan on writing a scholarly journal article (well, maybe one). I'm taking my case to the streets bringing good scholarship to them with everything I write. So in that sense I'm bypassing the scholars. They'll be the last ones to know.

And I find that funny too.

Chuck O'Connor said...

I recommend Spiegel's interview with Lukeprog at Common Sense Atheism's podcast "Conversations From The Pale Blue Dot". It is evident that Spiegel is operating in a circular argument dependent on cultural superstition and special pleading. His thesis amounts to a tautology and can't account for geographical dependent religious diversity. I appreciate Christians belief (my wife claims to be one as do some of my closest friends) but I haven't been happier and peceful since I abandoned non-falsifiable tropes like "noetic" tendencies or the Sensus Divinitus (where exactly can we observe that and how big is it? It must have measurable substance if you demand it is broken.) My deconversion has been accelerated and my atheism accepted with comfort knowing I have my Dad's approval of it.

Morrison said...

What I found most interesting about the Loftus "deconverison" story is that in his book he bluntly states that TWO of his three main reasons for deconverting were emotional, not logical.

And his first book does not really address atheism per se until the last couple of chapters in which he defends atheism as being based on his belief that everything is the result of "chance"...his word.

This is something he can't demonstrate, of course, and reflects the irrational basis of his "control beliefs", as he puts it.

If you look at his frequent name calling, and his demagogic use of the term "delusion", even titling his second book with that word, you see further evidence that there are strong emotinal components to his anti Christianity, probably based on guilt he feels for things he admits he did to his family and congregation.

I don't mean this to be harsh, but these are all things he states in his first book.

In one sense, I think Loftus posting on your blog is a cry for help.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Several statistical studies have been made of converts to Evangelical Christianity over the past 200 years. Two such studies were mentioned in Christianity Today:

"In the late 1800s, Edwin Starbuck conducted ground-breaking studies on conversion to Christianity. Ever since then, scholars, attempting either to verify or disprove his findings, have repeatedly demonstrated them to be accurate. Most observers agree that what Starbuck observed is to a large extent still valid. From these studies we learn two significant things: the age at which conversion to Christianity most often occurs, and the motivational factors involved in conversion. Starbuck noted that the average age of a person experiencing a religious conversion was 15.6 years. Other
studies have produced similar results; as recently as 1979, Virgil Gillespie wrote that the average age of conversion in America is 16 years.


(1) fears,

(2) other self-regarding motives,

(3) altruistic motives,

(4) following out a moral ideal,

(5) remorse for and conviction of sin,

(6) response to teaching,

(7) example and imitation, and

(8) urging and social pressure.

"Recent studies reveal that people still become Christians mainly for these same reasons.

"What conclusions can be drawn from this information? First, the average age of conversion is quite young. Postadolescent persons do not seem to find Christianity as attractive as do persons in their teens. Indeed, for every year the non-Christian grows older than 25, the odds increase exponentially against his or her ever becoming a Christian.

"Second, the reasons people become Christians appear to have at least as much to do with sociological factors as with purely 'religious' factors (for example, conviction of sin)."

[SOURCE: CT Classic: The Adult Gospel: The average convert to Islam is 31 years old. Why does Christianity attract mostly teens? By Larry Poston]

Edward T. Babinski said...

People who have a well developed world view are unlikely to relinquish it over night after running into puzzling questions concerning only a few of its aspects. All thinking people develop world views as ways of understanding both their personal world and the cosmos around them, and their worldview fits together for them and becomes an ingrained part of that person. Well worn ways of interpreting people and things around become so commonplace that people with well developed world views can reply to questions and counter-arguments without even having to consider their replies too much. Even their mental circuits become reflexive to a certain degree. And they are certain they are right.

There's two ways that a worldview can change after it is deeply ingrained:

1) It can die a slow death over time, a death of a thousand qualifications. The person adds qualifications and sub-qualifications whenever puzzling data is noted, or the person begins admitting that more and more remains a mystery. At some point the worldview itself may be ejected or liberalized considerably. And a search continues for another worldview, one more inclusive, perhaps more mysterious, or if the person turns toward atheism, mysterious in another sense a strictly naturalistic one, such as the sense of wonder at undiscovered questions and territories.

2) The second way in which a well developed, well worn worldview is jarred loose is via traumatic experiences or realizations. Such experiences or realizations can make a person "question everything they thought they once believed or knew," and make them want to "start from scratch" when it comes to holding a worldview.

And yes, such experiences can occur to both atheists and Christians. They can occur to people of different denominations and churches within Christianity as well, who may switch to other denominations or churches, or to other religions. See my online paper, "The Uniqueness of the Christian Experience," and of course, Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists

Edward T. Babinski said...

Lastly, James S. Spiegel seems overly focused on "atheists," when in fact there's a whole spectrum from conservative Christianity to moderate to liberal and/or to mystical, and various degrees of agnosticism before one reaches "atheism."

There's even different branches of Christianity that people convert to, each time convinced that "Ah, NOW I've found the Truth with a captial T! What a glorious revelation!"

Or even other religions to which a Christian might convert.

Also when Spiegel writes about people "rejecting God" I don't think that fits people who were never theists to begin with. Most atheists I know were never theists to begin with. (I myself am agnostic).

And what about those who were raised Christian but who say that their faith fell away naturally? That they found they could no longer honestly recite the apostle's Creed and say, "I believe it?" That they simply no longer believed all that they used to believe about holy books, holy rites, etc.

Edward T. Babinski said...

"How Immorality Leads to Unbelief?"

I don't suppose all of the immoral heroes of the Bible left the fold now, did they? Or all the divorced or philandering or avaricious or pride-filled preachers, priests, popes, etc.? So, is "immorality" really the switch that turns people into (dare I whisper the term on this blog) "atheists?"

I suspect in fact that people cool off toward orthodox religious faith for a HOST of different reasons, and to widely different degrees.

Chuck O'Connor said...

Heres the link to the Spiegel podcast:

If you listen to it with an honest ear you will see he can't reason his way out of the truth that Christians are ruled by cognitive bias and are as immoral as atheists.

Cognitive bias can feel very good but I'd suggest you take a step outside your Christian bubble Groothuis if you wish to be seen as anything more than an insular thinker.